GAINESVILLE, Va. (WDVM) Army First Lieutenant James Riffe commanded 1st Platoon, I Company, 106th Infantry Regiment of the 27th Infantry Division when the iconic Battle of Okinawa began on Sunday morning April 1st, 1945.
“I had about 30 young Americans, mostly 18 and 19 year olds that I led into battle,” said Riffe as he looked back on more than 30 years of military service. Together they faced veteran Japanese soldiers who were well-armed and waiting for them.
Unlike previous landings on islands like Peleliu, the Japanese didn’t defend the beaches on Okinawa. They let four U.S. Army infantry divisions and three U.S. Marine divisions come ashore unopposed.
“They decided they would defend the southern part where the ridges were steep and there were plenty of places to hide,” said Riffe whose job was to blow or burn them out of their bunkers.
Riffe still wonders why he survived when his lead scout and a first aid man who came forward to treat a wounded soldier didn’t.
“I can still hear the bullets going by my ears and I later thought to myself, ‘Why Not Me?” said Riffe who was later wounded when a forward artillery observer who begged to go on patrol with Riffe stepped on a land mine that blew off both of his legs and sprayed Riffe with shrapnel.
“I really didn’t know I was wounded,” said Riffe until one of his men told him his whole back was soaked in blood.
The drive south bled the 27th Infantry Division dry. “In one day, my division lost 500 men,” said Riffe; rendering it no longer combat effective and replaced by the First Marine Division.
By June 21st, 1945 organized resistance ended on Okinawa with the surrender of Japanese forces that were still alive.
But First Lieutenant James Riffe didn’t get to go home until November. He and his platoon pulled occupation duty in Japan; collecting rifles and bayonets, breaking up swords and destroying heavy weapons of war.